A Fish Tale of Art, Destruction and Sustainability - Part I

Legacy Part 23 – April White – Haida, Artist & Herring Person

Text By Blake Butterfield – Co-Editor-in-Chief and Head Correspondent

A Fish Tale

Pacific herring have inhabited the waters of the Pacific Northwest for unknown millennia. These small, oily pelagic zone-inhabiting creatures used to exist in such numbers that their catch rates were measured in tonnes, not numbers of fish.

These herring are a part of the food chain for so many species including not just those who live in the water, but also land animals and birds. Their spawning habitat is massive, almost 20% of British Columbia’s 29,5000 km coast is classified as such, and this includes much of the coast of Haida Gwaii, the island archipelago comprising some 150 islands approximately 50 or so miles off the northern BC coast.

It is generally believed that humans arrived on these islands somewhere around 13,000 years ago. Archaeologists have excavated herring bones left over from ancient meals at sites on Haida Gwaii dating back almost 11,000 years.

Somewhere along that timeline, the Haida began harvesting herring roe that had been laid on kelp, a large seaweed that can grow in such abundance that it creates a “kelp forest” in the sea. Some of Earth’s most bio-diverse ecosystems can evolve within kelp forests. Besides the vital role they play in nurturing a healthy herring population, kelp forests can become home to perhaps thousands of species, depending on the region.

In the cold, nutrient rich waters off Haida Gwaii, this ecosystem flourished and became a part of the rich, healthy, sustainable spawn on kelp harvest of the Haida people. The Canadian court system has accepted that spawn on kelp harvesting has been a part of First Nations culture on this coast since before the time of European contact.

The very definition of a reduction fishery, herring on the coast of BC had been reduced from riches to a pittance.

For well over 10,000 years, herring and their roe appear to have been a sustained staple of the Haida people’s diets. Then, in 1877, the first commercial catch of Pacific herring was recorded. In typical European management style, the fishery increased its take massively over the following decades. By the early 1960s, over 250,000 tonnes of herring were being harvested in a single year.

Lessons Not Learned

According to the DFO’s own herring data, between 1961 and 1965, well over one million tonnes of herring stock were caught and mostly turned into low-value products like fish meal and oil. This out-of-control harvesting could not last long, and it did not. By the end of the 1965 season, the remaining herring left to spawn all along the coast was estimated as weighing only about 15,000 tonnes. Nevertheless, they persisted, fishing one more season.

By 1967, only 90 years after it began, the commercial reduction fishery of Pacific herring, the tiny fish that had been all but ubiquitous for millennia, had to be closed (except for traditional food and bait) along the entire coast of BC due to collapsed stocks. Millions of tonnes of ecologically vital forage fish had been pulled out of the ocean and reduced from living beings into fertilizer, oil, and food that humans feed to other animals. The fishery remained closed for four years.

The very definition of a reduction fishery, herring on the coast of BC had been reduced from riches to a pittance. It had taken only a short amount of time. Ironic? Perhaps, but this irony had played itself out in almost exactly the same fashion only a handful of years earlier right across the Pacific Ocean, in Japan.

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First recorded in 1447, the people inhabiting the herring mecca of Hokkaido, Japan had been sustainably harvesting Hokkaido-Sakhalin herring to feed the local and nearby population for centuries. Then, in 1876, they opened this fishery up to the much larger, always hungry, global market, a market that shows little regard for such provincial issues as maintaining a local fish stock. When the herring of Hokkaido became a pawn in the irrational game of gathering money out of the global economy for fishermen to hoard, disaster quickly ensued.

For over a half a century, an average of around 500,000 tonnes of Hokkaido-Sakhalin herring were removed from the Hokkaido coast ecosystem every single year, with a high of 970,000 tonnes in 1897 alone. Over a handful of decades, the enormous population of herring was steadily reduced until, by 1955, the spawning ground along the coast of Hokkaido had completely disappeared. It has never returned.

For the project, she asked for a list of species for whom herring is a major dietary component. The finished pieces are now called the “Herring People” series.

Did British Columbia’s commercial herring fishery learn anything from Japan’s mistakes in regards to its herring catch? Not by a long shot. After the BC collapse of 1967, the Pacific herring once again proved themselves to be a resilient species and, within about five years, the numbers showed that stocks had rebounded to the point where the Canadian fishery was reopened.

Big Enough To Fail

But the stocks were nowhere near their previous size and, by the 1990’s, began to collapse again. This time, they were much slower to recover.

By 2014, the Haida Nation had seen enough. The commercial herring roe fishery in Haida Gwaii had been closed since 2003, but stocks had still not recovered to healthy numbers. Still, that year, Gail Shea, the Minister of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans decided to go against the advice of her own scientists, who had reported that herring stocks were too small to support a commercial fishery.

Minister Shea decided to open it anyway. Represented by their General Counsel, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, the Haida Nation went to court to have the commercial herring fishery shut down completely. With Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982, Part One of which recognizes and affirms Aboriginal rights, and with science on their side, they won. Today, in 2018, Haida Gwaii’s herring fishery has yet to reopen.

In an attempt to bring the sad tale of Pacific herring to light, University of British Columbia scientists Tony Pitcher and Mimi Lam asked local Haida artist April White to take part in a project they were working on. April, a geology graduate from UBC, was already incorporating science themes such as food chains and ecology into her art, making her a perfect candidate.

Eye of the Beholder

With an expectation of just one image at the beginning, by the time the project was completed, April had eight new pieces of artwork featuring herring as they connected to their place in the ecosystem. For the project, she asked for a list of species for whom herring is a major dietary component. The finished pieces are now called the “Herring People” series.

 April White at her home and gallery, Old Massett, Haida Gwaii

April White at her home and gallery, Old Massett, Haida Gwaii

To illustrate her “Herring People” series, April chose beings living in the three realms - land, sea, and sky - with disparate sizes, shapes and character, that prey upon herring. For the gilled fish in the sea, she chose Salmon to represent the scaled and Dogfish/Shark to represent the cartilaginous. For marine mammals, she chose the humpback whale, a baleen whale that eats whole schools of herring, and the dolphin for its voracious appetite for herring. She chose the sea-lion as a transitional animal as it lives both on land and in the water. She chose a man and a woman, saying that humans both eat herring and play a stewardship role for this forage fish and, as a Haida, she knows the importance of herring as a food source. Finally, she chose an eagle rather than a seabird as, although they are thought of as being of the sky realm, they are frequently seen catching a lot of herring.

In true Haida fashion, April talks of the herring as beings, not as fish. This, she says, makes them equivalent to human beings.

The Sealives Initiative met April White when Jason was staying at one of her rental lodgings in Old Massett, the Haida Gwaii Lodge. Her artwork adorns the walls and stairways of her well-appointed building overlooking Massett Inlet and its wide, fast-flowing tidal waters. Jason was able to sit down with April one evening to discuss her work with the aforementioned Pacific herring project.

But why have art involved in a science project, anyway? As April sees it, it is important because it stimulates a different part of the brain. She says it brings science to everybody, as everyone can be moved by art while they may not understand science. This belief was confirmed for her one evening when the findings were being presented to the public. After the science had been presented, she showed off her eight new pieces. When the presentation was over, a member of the audience came up and told her she had just explained in five minutes what it would take somebody four years to learn at school.

Sacred Cultural Icon

In true Haida fashion, April talks of the herring as beings, not as fish. This, she says makes them equivalent to human beings. She says there are stories that speak of herring as supernatural beings that gather in longhouses. One such story, as she tells it, illustrates the time when the Haida found out about just how delicious herring roe on kelp is. “In the spring, when herring spawn, the herring are in their longhouses when a man walks by. The man is hungry and, upon hearing the revelry coming out of this herring longhouse, he sticks his face in. When he pulls back, he finds his beard covered in herring roe and he tastes it. He did not find the flavor overly appealing that first time, but he stuck a hemlock branch in and that got covered as well. He tried the roe again, this time off the branch, and found he liked it.” Today, harvesting is still often done by using hemlock branches placed in the waters for the herring to lay their eggs on.

From a natural perspective, she tells us that the Haida way of gathering roe on kelp is relatively unobtrusive. The herring lay their roe on the kelp, or on hemlock branches placed in the waters, and the roe is pulled out while the fish remain in the water. The herring are unharmed in this resource extraction, going on to spawn yearly during their reproductive life.

This is in stark contrast to the way commercial fisheries collect roe. April says it is likely the most profitable part of the herring fishery commercially, but the way they do it is also the most detrimental to the fish stock. These commercial vessels catch the herring, then slice open and remove the eggs from pregnant fish. Everything else is ground up into fish meal or other non-human foods.

To April, it is obvious that these fish are far more valuable in the ecosystem than when taken out for such paltry purposes. The sustainable extraction practiced by the Haida, she says, is pursuant with the Haida value of, “Everything depends on everything else.

Next week, Sealives will publish Part II of A Fish Tale of Art, Destruction and Sustainability.